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19: Respect For The Written Character

One of the most curious and harmless customs of the Chinese is that of carefully burning every scrap of paper inscribed with the cherished characters which, as far as calligraphy goes, justly take precedence of those of any other language on the globe. Not content with mere reduction by fire, a conscientious Chinaman will collect the ashes thus produced, and sealing them up in some earthen vessel, will bury them deep in the earth or sink them to the bottom of a river. Then only does he consider that he has fully discharged his duty towards paper which has by mere accident become as sacred in the eyes of all good men as the most precious relic of any martyred saint in the estimation of a Catholic priest. Rich men are constantly in the habit of paying _chiffoniers_ to collect such remnants of written paper as they may find lying about the streets, and in all Chinese towns there are receptacles at the most frequented points where the results of their labours may be burned. The above facts are pretty generally known to foreigners in China and elsewhere, but we do not think that native ideas on the subject have ever been brought forward otherwise than indirectly. We therefore give the translation of a short essay published in 1870 by an enthusiastic scholar, and distributed gratis among his erring countrymen:--

"From of old down to the present time our sages have devoted themselves to the written character--that fairest jewel in heaven above or earth beneath. Those, therefore, who are stimulated by a thirst for _fame_, strive to attain their end by the excellency of their compositions; others, attracted by desire for wealth, pursue their object with the help of day-book and ledgers. In both cases men would be helpless without a knowledge of the art of writing. How, indeed, could despatches be composed, agreements drawn up, letters exchanged, and genealogies recorded, but for the assistance of the written character? By what means would a man chronicle the glory of his ancestors, indite the marriage deed, or comfort anxious parents when exiled to a distant land? In what way could he secure property to his sons and grandchildren, borrow or lend money, enter into partnership, or divide a patrimony, but with the testimony of written documents? The very labourer in the fields, tenant of a few acres, must have his rights guaranteed in black and white; and household servants require more than verbal assurance that their wages will not fail to be paid. The prescription of the physician, about to call back some suffering patient from the gates of death, is taken down with pen and ink; and the prognostication of the soothsayer, warning men of evil or predicting good fortune, exemplifies in another direction the use of the written character. In a word, the art of writing enriches and ennobles man, hands him over to life or death, confers upon him honours and distinctions, or covers him with abuse and shame.

"Of late, however, our schools have turned out an arrogant and ignorant lot--boys who venture to use old books for wrapping parcels or papering windows, for boiling water, or wiping the table; boys, I say, who scribble over their books, who write characters on wall or door, who chew up the drafts of their poems, or throw them away on the ground. Let all such be severely punished by their masters that they may be saved, while there is yet time, from the wrath of an avenging Heaven. Some men use old pawn-tickets for wrapping up things--it may be a cabbage or a pound of bean-curd. Others use lottery-tickets of various descriptions for wrapping up a picked vegetable or a slice of pork, with no thought of the crime they are committing as long as there is a cash to be made or saved. So also there are those who exchange their old books for pumeloes or ground-nuts, to be defiled with the filth of the waste-paper basket, and passed from hand to hand like the cheques of the barbarian. Alas, too, for women when they go to fairs, for children who are sent to market! They cannot read one single character: they know not the priceless value of written paper. They drop the wrapping of a parcel in the mire for every passer-by to tread under foot. Their crime, however, will be laid at the door of those who erred in the first instance (i.e., those who sold their old books to the shopkeepers). For they hoped to squeeze some profit, infinitesimal indeed, out of tattered or incomplete volumes; forgetting in their greed that they were dishonouring the sages, and laying up for themselves certain calamity. Why then sacrifice so much for such trifling gain? How much better a due observance of time-honoured custom, ensuring as it would a flow of prosperity continuous and everlasting as the waves of the sea! O ye merchants and shopkeepers, know that in heaven as on earth written words are esteemed precious as the jade, and whatever is marked therewith must not be cast aside like stones and tiles. For happiness, wealth, honours, distinctions, and old age, may be one and all secured by a proper respect for written paper."